|Sha’ar Communities packages surplus medical supplies with the AFYA Foundation Courtesy Sha’ar Communities|
By any measure, Sha’ar Communities is an innovative venture.
Providing several gates of entry – the word “sha’ar” means “gate” – the network brings Jews together around common interests such as study, prayer, and tikkun olam.
“We offer participants a choice in the content of their Jewish lives and the opportunity to build community for themselves around different modes of engaging Jewishly,” the group’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Adina Lewittes, said. “While it might look to the outsider like a deconstructed synagogue, we’re responding to the trend of people moving away from large legacy institutions and looking for smaller, more mission-driven Jewish communities.”
The Gate of Tomorrow, targeted to Jewish teenagers, has been particularly successful, she said, noting that with the help of a grant it recently received from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, Sha’ar hopes to attract even more youngsters – especially those from unaffiliated families.
The rabbi explained that given Sha’ar’s nature, “If someone belongs to another existing institution but sees a program [at Sha’ar] that they want, they can add it on to their Jewish affiliation without being confronted by loyalty issues.”
Some families, however, are not affiliated at all.
“The great challenge in Bergen County is that more than 50 percent of Jews who live here have no connection to the Jewish community,” Lewittes said, noting that Sha’ar’s expanded youth programs “will complement existing institutional models and create a low barrier offering a welcoming and affordable way for them to find a way in.”
With the grant money, “we’ll intensify our efforts to reach those Jewish kids whose families are off the grid completely – not in day schools, JCCs, or synagogues.”
To do this, Sha’ar will expand its Mosaic of the Mitzvot b’nai mitzvah program and launch a new program for high school students called Teens 2.0: Hitting the Refresh Button on Teen Jewish Identity.
Lewittes said that the Mosaic program focuses not on liturgy but on the spiritual aspect of preparing for b’nai mitzvah; it emphasizes “what it means for young adults to assume the full range of responsibilities of leading a Jewish life.”
Geared to seventh-graders and serving from 10 to 15 students each year, the program includes a wide range of youngsters, some of whom also are preparing for more traditional bar or bat mitzvah celebrations at a synagogue. Rather than teaching students about ritual, Sha’ar – “using the tristate area as a living beit midrash/house of study,” as Lewittes put it – stresses the commandments to care for others, for the community, for the environment, and for those who are different. Graduating students are acknowledged during a Shabbat evening ceremony.
Andy Arenson, a member of the Sha’ar board and the group’s chief relationship officer, said students who complete the Mosaic program often ask, “What’s next?”
She expects many of them to join the synagogue’s new Teens 2.0 program.
“Teens 2.0 will expose teens to professionals across a wide spectrum of roles who will engage them in conversation about the significance of Judaism in the work they do,” Lewittes said, noting that she hopes to recruit both students who have been involved in the community and those not yet active. “It’s an exciting way of getting to the slippery issue of Jewish identity.”
“We’ve tried to select people in the community who are professionals in all different walks of life who can speak to how their Jewish identity has informed their values and what they’re doing,” Arenson said.
One speaker will be the head of cytogenetics at Columbia University.
“Cytogenetics lab scientists make decisions every day about prenatal testing – how do Jewish values inform that?” Arenson said, noting that other guests will include a musician, a journalist, and someone from the business world. “How did their values influence where they are today?” she continued. “Why does it matter?”
Lewittes said the program will help students become more conscious of who they are as Jews, “bringing their values and heritage when they take over the reins of society.”
Her goal is to launch the program in January with between 15 and 20 students.
Arenson, whose daughter went through Sha’ar’s b’nai mitzvah program, said that while the youngster had been educated in day schools and is very involved in Young Judaea, Sha’ar’s program “offered something else to her – the opportunity to meet and to bond with kids who were not necessarily a part of her milieu,” expanding her awareness of people with differing Jewish identities.
“Over the years, we’ve had students from Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated backgrounds coming together,” Arenson said. “Some years, a lot have come from day schools; other years many were from public schools or home-schooled. We’ve had kids from Tenafly, Demarest, Closter, Englewood, Teaneck, Haworth, Harrington Park, Oradell, Montvale, and other towns. There’s a low barrier. They don’t need to have a specific knowledge of Hebrew or Judaism. It gives them the opportunity to connect with Judaism in a way that feels comfortable to them.”
Sam Forman, who participated in the first season of the b’nai mitzvah program and is now a freshman at Temple University, where he plans to major in history, said the Mosaic program had a long-lasting effect on his Jewish identity.
“I remember that one of the first things we did was go to the Jewish Museum in New York City and look at pictures of immigrants coming to the U.S. and what they dealt with,” he said. Coming from a family with roots in Eastern Europe, the 18-year-old said the experience “made me feel connected with tradition. To see them and their struggle in coming here is something I care deeply about.
“I’m thankful that the program took me there,” he said. “I’ll always remember those portraits and pictures.”
Forman said that if he still were living in Teaneck, he certainly would attend the new teen program.
Explaining that he has felt somewhat disengaged from traditional prayer, he said, “It’s about heritage and continuing a very rich cultural tradition. I want to see how people deal with that – to hear what people have to say [about it] in a changing world.”
In the meantime, Arenson’s daughter, now 16, is planning to join Teens 2.0, and so are several of her friends. So is 17-year-old Sasha Kauderer-Abrams of Englewood, who is a member of Sha’ar’s board of directors. Kauderer-Abrams said she is reaching out to friends and classmates who might be interested and using Facebook “to spread the word.”
“I am telling them that it is a great opportunity to find out about different professions while engaging in interesting conversations,” she said. “I am also stressing that Rabbi Lewittes is great at translating Jewish learning into personal and real life examples. She makes it real for us and helps us explore challenging issues. It’s also a great chance to meet other kids with similar interests.”
Kauderer-Abrams said that participating in the Mosaic program was a “great experience, because we got to explore different aspects of Jewish life first hand that were new to me…. It was also great to have a chance to talk about the bar/bat mitzvah experience with other kids going through it at the same time.”
Lewittes clearly is excited about Teens 2.0.
“We feel really strongly about this,” she said. “To my knowledge, it’s the only program of its kind to be a connector between Jewish teens and Jewish adults from across the spectrum engaging in issues of Jewish identity.”
“Bringing Torah alive in the work of real-life Jews is a potential source of learning that isn’t usually tapped,” she said. “We want the kids to see the potential impact they can make not by becoming rabbis but by cultivating a deeper awareness of the privilege and responsibility of living as Jews in our world.”
Rob Hyman, the federation’s managing director of governance and strategic initiatives, said that Sha’ar received its grant as part of the allocations process under the organization’s new funding model. Sha’ar submitted proposals related to several of its “gates,” and the review committee ultimately recommended the Gate of Tomorrow for funding.
According to Hyman, the program was recommended for several reasons.
“Its target population, Jewish youth between 12 and 18, is something that lines up with our priority areas of Jewish education, identity, and continuity,” he said. The program also aims to engage the next generation, “which is a particular area of interest and emphasis to us.”
In addition, he said, “It is innovative. It offers new and different approaches to engaging the unaffiliated, in particular.”
With its focus on two of the federation’s main concerns, “and offering a creative and innovative approach to doing that,” the project was embraced warmly by the review committee. Hyman also applauded Sha’ar’s “both-end approach,” targeting both teens who are Jewishly engaged and those who are unaffiliated.
For more information on Sha’ar Communities and on the Gate of Tomorrow, go to www.shaarcommunities.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 201-213-9569.